Management & Operations

Women in Transit: Oustanding Leaders, Private and Public

Posted on July 1, 2005 by METRO Editorial Staff

As one of our selections this year says: “Women are playing an increasing role in transit today, contributing in a more positive manner and from a different perspective.” There’s no better way to describe the diversification of roles and the still-growing presence of women at every level of transit. This year we chronicle the achievements of six women who have used skills in technology, consulting, entrepreneurship, marketing, computers and administration to make their mark on the industry.

Debra Alexander

Setting goals and capitalizing on opportunities have helped this transit veteran achieve success at the highest levels.

Strategy and vision are two key words describing Debra Alexander’s contribution to public transportation since she joined the industry 20 years ago. As the assistant executive director at the Capital Area Transportation Authority (CATA) in Lansing, Mich., Alexander’s responsibilities include management of the strategic plan and development activities. This includes looking for new opportunities and capitalizing on them. “People tell me I have a way of seeing the future clearly and being able to envision the steps to get there,” Alexander says. “Opportunity is everywhere, we just have to know where to look!” Alexander began her career in pubic transportation at Ann Arbor (Mich.) Transportation Authority (AATA) after spending four years in education and two years at a petroleum products corporation, where she developed her marketing skills. After just one year, the opportunity came to join AATA. In 1986, opportunity came again, for Alexander to join the team at CATA as marketing manager. She used many skills acquired in the private sector to tackle marketing challenges, beginning with research. She learned that CATA needed to enhance its image and followed through by giving the agency a more retail look and bringing consistency into the application of the image. Alexander’s strategy had a tremendous impact on the entire organization. With solid ridership growth each year, the system was moving, growing and gaining support locally. Alexander is driven by goals. “In each position I take, I set goals for myself to accomplish while in that position,” she says. “My goal when coming to CATA was for the organization to receive an APTA award for the most outstanding system in America.” That goal was achieved in 1991. Once that goal was accomplished, she sought bigger challenges. So in 1992, Alexander accepted the opportunity to join the Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC) in Minneapolis as marketing director. The leadership made it clear they were looking for someone who could turn around an 11-year ridership decline. “My goal for my tenure at MTC was to increase ridership beyond the expectations of the leadership,” she says. Alexander began at ground zero — building a marketing team, developing marketing and business strategies and gaining support throughout the organization for this vision. In Minneapolis, Alexander had to learn how to deal with daunting political challenges. “While I was at MTC, I worked under three board structures and three general managers,” she says. And she was only there for three years. In that time, however, Alexander accomplished many of her goals, including ridership gains, service enhancements and innovative marketing programs such as a frequent-rider program. When opportunity came knocking again, it was to return to the private sector, this time as a market research consultant. As a consultant, she saw transit systems all over North America and in Europe. “It was a great learning experience,” Alexander says. Two years later, in 1998, she ended what she calls her “six-year sabbatical” and returned to CATA as director of strategic management. In 2002, she was promoted to assistant executive director. What’s next for Alexander? More goals, such as becoming an executive director or going to law school or getting a master’s degree in business. “If you don’t dream big, you don’t get anything at all,” she says. Debra Alexander
Assistant Executive Director
Capital Area Transportation Authority
Lansing, Mich.

Debra Cotton

Background in technology helps director drive Phoenix transit forward.

Unlike transit vehicles, careers don’t often travel on fixed routes. Unexpected turns can be the norm. For Debbie Cotton, one such turn led into the transit industry from a path focused on technology. But the transition was not necessarily a stretch. Cotton came to Phoenix from Chicago, where she worked for 12 years at Xerox Corp. In 2002, Cotton moved to the Phoenix Public Transit Department (PPTD) from another city department to oversee the Regional Information Technology Division. The transit agency had created a position of deputy director for information technology. In November 2003, Cotton became acting director of the transit department. In May of this year, she was permanently named to the director role. Cotton’s background has continued to serve her well. Her current duties include administering the department’s technology programs and implementing technology standards, along with leading regional transit projects. “There is great commonality between computers and transit service,” Cotton says. “Both heavily rely on a network to provide the best service to their customers.” Accordingly, one of Cotton’s key goals for her tenure as director is to use her understanding of technology as a guide in modernizing transit operations and vehicle fleets. The PPTD, which is the largest member of the Valley Metro transit system, services about 40 million passenger boardings per year. As director, Cotton is charged with overseeing a $140 million annual operating budget that must accommodate 84 city employees and contracts with three private companies. Cotton says that local cities have taken a strong lead in supporting public transportation. In March 2000, residents voted to fund transit services with an additional 0.4% on sales tax. Since then, the system has been buying new buses, extending service and implementing other promises made to the public. Among the challenges Cotton faces is a pent- up demand for services, which the department is trying to meet with what its resources and budget allow. She says that the economy hasn’t helped in staying on track with their intended schedule, and most recently, late-night service had to be scaled back. “It was a difficult decision to make since we were so proud to be able to extend our service under our transit plan,” Cotton says. “It didn’t feel like defeat, but it was a step backward.” Still, within the few years she’s been in the transit industry, Cotton has already discovered many of its rewarding facets. She points to the opportunity to affect people personally while contributing to a grander scheme that impacts a metropolitan area. “On an everyday level, I know that we give mobility to a huge variety of people to enable them to get to work, get an education and just live their lives,” Cotton says. On a greater level, she cherishes the ability to help in matters of widespread importance, such as reducing dependency on oil — both foreign and domestic — and cutting pollution. “It seems to be a new era for public transportation, and I am lucky enough to participate in it,” she says. Debra Cotton
Phoenix Public Transit Department

Fran Hooper

Taps political passion to help shape transit issues.

During her junior high civics course, Fran Hooper became interested in politics and thought a job on Capitol Hill was in her future. In a way, Hooper has fulfilled that dream by finding her own niche in Washington, D.C., as director of member services for the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the 1,500-plus member trade association representing operators of mass transit services. “I am [still] doing the public’s business, but I happen to be doing it in the public transportation arena,” she says. In a roundabout way, Hooper’s first transit industry job was as a budget office manager for Fairfax County, Va., where she handled the county’s budget for the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro). Wanting a change, she moved to Metro, where she worked in the budget office for a time and then moved to transit operations. It was during a two-year stint as assistant superintendent at D.C. Metro’s Bladensburg Division bus garage that led Hooper to realize and appreciate that “the service [transit] provides has an immediate impact on people’s lives.” Hooper learned about all aspects of bus operation and was responsible for putting out 400 buses a day. “Once you get out in the field,” she says, “You get diesel in your blood.” After Metro, Hooper moved to Dallas where she worked as assistant to the deputy executive director of Dallas Area Rapid Transit and then to New Jersey Transit Corp. as external affairs assistant executive director. Wanting to return to the D.C. area, Hooper found an opportunity to join APTA. Having worked on various programs, written speeches and presentations for the association during her tenure at the various transit agencies, it was a natural progression. Hooper’s job duties include providing support for APTA members in the areas of commuter and intercity rail, transit procurement, revenue management, private-sector members and international programs. She also develops and manages annual business plans; plans, organizes and delivers conferences, programs and meetings; meets with officials from federal agencies and other interest groups on public policy and regulatory issues; and develops standards, reports and issue papers. While her position requires her to work with many issues, she says the procurement issue has been at the forefront. Whether it’s working with the procurement task force, putting together a procurement guide for transit board members and general managers, Hooper is responsible for leading the effort and getting things done. “What I like best about this job is being able to help our members,” she says. “Whether it’s solving problems, getting information or making connections so they can do their jobs better.” Hooper says drawing upon her skills as a “translator” has helped her achieve success at her job. “I can talk to the technical people about positive train control or Buy America and then turn around and translate that into a language and presentation that policy and decision makers can understand,” she says. Another skill Hooper possesses is pulling ideas, information and opinions from disparate places and shaping them into a “good conference program or a proposal on how to proceed with an issue.” She’s also skilled at using her knowledge to develop effective meeting agendas. An achievement she is most proud of is expanding the program of services and activities for the association’s business members. Fran Hooper
Director, Member Services
American Public Transportation Association
Washington, D.C.

Mary Ann Jackson

Consultant uses skills to teach cooperation, enhance operational efficiency.

Mary Ann Jackson loves the transit industry. After more than 25 years of management, labor relations and employee development for transit operations, she decided there was more that she could do. Jackson saw a myriad of opportunities to give back to the transit community, not as an administrator or operator, but as a consultant. She would take the best of what she loved during her career and focus on doing these things for transit operations in need of her skills and expertise. She started LTC Consulting and Training (LTC) in 2002 and has helped leaders solve problems and improve performance ever since. Jackson realized she needed credentials to back her years of experience so she obtained a master’s degree in applied behavioral science from Bastyr University in Kenmore, Wash. The graduate program, which focused on consulting, allowed her to simultaneously pursue her degree and practice in her field. “What I’ve always wanted to do is work in an industry that I care about,” says Jackson. “I want to help the people busy running buses and trains improve their performance.” Jackson credits Dr. Mary Davis, CEO of McGlothin Davis Inc., for mentoring her and providing her with the applied training necessary to handle the rigors of people management. “She’s been where I’m going,” Jackson says. “She’s seven or eight years ahead of me moving out of transit into the organization development consulting world.” Jackson succeeded Davis as chair of the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) Women in Transit Committee, where she served for two years. She is still active with APTA and is also a member of the Washington State Transit Association. Davis’ mentorship was a godsend for Jackson, but obstacles surface on occasion, especially with LTC being a new business. “My biggest challenge is having people know what I am capable of and having organizations transition from seeing me as vice president of operations somewhere to an organizational development consultant,” Jackson says. Her diligence pays off, however, when people warm up to her and the idea of receiving her services. “It’s very gratifying,” she says. On any given workday, Jackson has overlapping duties. When she isn’t busy working with clients, she is looking for ways to work with clients. Upon establishing a relationship, she implements the framework necessary to support sustained, long-term improvements. “A key element of sustainable performance improvement is developing genuine commitment to the desired change,” she says. “This is an element that is often overlooked as leaders focus on the technical solutions they are implementing.” Jackson had come to a juncture in her career where she had to decide if she would pursue work in transit operations in another city or start her consulting business. Ultimately, there was not much to decide as her children always came first. LTC is an acronym for the names of Jackson’s three children, Lindsey (30), Tony (20) and Casey (18). “I named my company after them as a way of reminding myself what was most important,” she says. Jackson says she fell into the transit industry accidentally, like many others. She applied and got a job that segued into a 25-year career. But consulting, Jackson says, requires knowledge and previous experience. “I think you would have had to have been there in order to advise others on how to do it well.” Mary Ann Jackson
LTC Consulting and Training
University Place, Wash.

Feysan Lodde

Transporting the disabled and elderly is more than just a business to this enterprising California woman and her husband.

Feysan Lodde’s dedication to helping the disabled and elderly communities has been the driving force behind Fairfield, Calif.-based MV Transit. This mission is one of the main reasons she works to keep business booming. MV began in 1975 as a single-van operation in San Francisco, run by Lodde and her husband Alex. Lodde’s husband purchased a small company he’d been working for part-time that specialized in medical transfers, after realizing he’d grown to love the work. The Loddes turned their small studio apartment into an office to accommodate their new business, and the rest is history. Today, MV employs nearly 8,500 people and is the largest paratransit provider in the nation, with paratransit accounting for approximately 50% of its operation. Lodde’s initial role in the business was as a bus driver and included helping passengers board and leave the bus. She says this was one of the most enjoyable parts of her job. “It warmed my heart. It made me feel good at the end of the day to know that I was able to give back and help someone,” she says. “And it made me realize that at any time something like this could happen to me, to someone in my family, to anybody.” She contributed a significant amount of time to developing her and her husband’s business, spending the first 15 years heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of MV. “I was able to work really hard for about eight of those years, before my children came,” she says. “Even after having them, I still worked. I drove and did what I needed to do.” While Lodde is no longer a part of MV’s everyday operations, she still has a strong hand in the business. Every person on staff has her home phone number and cell phone number to reach her 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “My duty now is just to make sure that the playing field stays level,” Lodde says, “that my drivers and the people who work for me have what they need and that things are fair and people are treated right.” Despite remaining hands-off, Lodde still faces a variety of challenges in running the operation, including finding quality managers to run MV’s acquired businesses and qualified drivers. She adds that these problems come with running a service business, but the bottom line is to get people from one place to another. “In my business, whatever I have to do for MV, that’s what I do,” Lodde says. She also faces external industry complications, such as rising fuel prices and insurance fees. Lodde and her husband hope to see MV become a public company, and are in the midst of positioning themselves for that transition. To accommodate this, MV has expanded its board, which currently includes the Loddes and President/CEO Jon Monson, to include members from outside the company. Lodde believes that this expansion will help build MV, allowing the company to “keep people working, and to provide jobs and training and whatever it takes to give back to each of the communities we serve.” Feysan Lodde
Co-founder and Board Member
MV Transportation Inc.
Fairfield, Calif.

Franny Yuhas

Environmental consciousness, tech savvy contribute to public transit passion.

After getting her start with global technology giant Westinghouse Electric Corp. in Baltimore, Franny Yuhas had the opportunity to work on more than a few cutting-edge projects. These include the development of high-end communications equipment, advanced systems integration and one of the world’s first commercial mobile satellite telephones. It wasn’t long before she realized that transportation represented an emerging market for these types of technologies. “In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the transportation industry proved to be a growing area ready to embrace technology to improve infrastructure and operation,” Yuhas explains. “In particular, it made sense to take advantage of the benefits that global positioning systems could provide.” It is through this channel that Yuhas came to work for Orbital TMS (Transportation Management Systems), a major supplier of satellite-based automatic vehicle location (AVL) systems. GPS and AVL, however, were not in those days the commonplace concepts that they are today, she says. “At first, we had to educate transit agencies about these technologies, but now, almost everyone understands the benefits,” Yuhas says. Her dedication to teaching and spreading information about newer, brighter technologies has helped lay a new foundation for increasingly sophisticated transit management tools. Meanwhile, it characterizes Yuhas’ established role as an educator in the industry. For example, Yuhas has taken leadership roles with APTA’s Business Member Board of Governors and the Intelligent Transportation Society of America’s Public Transportation Forum Advisory. “I’m typically involved in any projects that support education and outreach activities of APTA initiatives, technology research and implementation,” she says. All the hard work and concentration on education, she adds, have earned Yuhas the reputation of being very passionate about her “causes.” In fact, not only does Yuhas work in the public transit arena, but she also strives in her personal life to meet many of the goals of transit, including reducing waste and pollution, promoting alternative energy sources and contributing to sustainable development. Yuhas says that she and her husband Tom recently had a 3.2 kilowatt photovoltaic power system — solar panels — installed on the roof of their home. The project was meticulously researched and planned, she says. “We are environmentalists at heart and supporters of causes to improve the natural environment,” she says. “I incorporate these practices into my daily life, and right now I’m currently getting more than 70 miles per gallon in my Honda hybrid car.” Of course, someone with this mentality is bound to support the quest for more efficient public transportation options, and Yuhas is no exception. She lists widespread regionalized fare collection, more frequent service, flexible travel options and the construction of convenient transit centers as major goals she would like to see accomplished in her lifetime. Yuhas acknowledges that the challenges facing public transit are formidable, but she believes that the industry has been very open to process change. The role of women, she says, is a great example of this. “During the first few APTA conferences I attended about 10 years ago, I never had to wait in line to use the ladies’ restroom between conference sessions. Now there is always a line,” she jokes. With Yuhas’ continued enthusiasm and commitment to improving the industry, those lines might just get longer. Franny Yuhas
National Sales Manager
Orbital TMS
Columbia, Md.

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